By Darragh Nolan
The tragic loss of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash shook the sports world, indeed the world at large, to its core.
The day prior to the accident, basketball fans and analysts watched LeBron James pass Kobe for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. The public was engaged in heated debate over how the numbers of the two greats matched up.
Those debates seem so small and insignificant in the wake of Kobe’s passing. What matters now is the grief of those impacted by this loss. It’s important that his legacy is honoured now that he’s been taken away so suddenly.
Ever since Kobe announced he was taking his talents to the NBA as a teenager, he had the basketball world’s undivided attention. He never let go of that attention. Playing for the league’s most popular franchise, the Los Angeles Lakers, he was thrust on to the global stage as an 18-year-old. He won the 1997 Slam Dunk Contest as a rookie and that was only the beginning of one of the most marvellous careers in NBA history.
The early years were defined by his partnership with Shaquille O’Neal, when they formed a duo that was completely unstoppable. The turn of the millennium saw Shaq and Kobe win three consecutive championships from 2000 to 2002. The historic run served as Kobe’s coming out party. He established himself as one of the most skilful, clutch players ever seen.
The Hall of Fame big man was traded from L.A. in 2004 but Kobe’s loyalty to the city was unwavering. He signed a seven-year extension with the Lakers and endured some difficult years. Things improved with the return of his old head coach Phil Jackson.
The combination of Kobe and All-Star forward Pau Gasol was reminiscent of the Shaq-Kobe years. With Jackson back at the helm, Kobe enjoyed a run that included another two rings in 2009 and ‘10, two Finals MVPs and his only league MVP award.
Jackson departed once more, and Bryant’s career somewhat dwindled in its later years. 2013 saw him drag the Lakers to the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoffs almost single-handedly, until a torn Achilles derailed his season. Even at his lowest, Kobe provided one of his most iconic moments by making two free throws despite the extent of the injury.
From there, the Lakers franchise languished, mired in a poorly run rebuilding process. Despite the mediocrity of the team around him, Kobe passed his idol Michael Jordan in the all-time scoring list and said goodbye with a 60-point performance in his final NBA game.
In terms of his on-court exploits, Kobe’s achievements are best encapsulated by the two numbers he wore during his 20-year career. In #8, he and Shaq were a dominant force that made four NBA Finals, winning three. In #24, ‘The Black Mamba’ cemented his own legacy, proving he could lead the Lakers to glory without O’Neal by his side.
Playing 10 seasons in each number, Kobe’s career number are effectively split evenly between the two. He scored 16,866 points and was an 8-time All-Star in #8, compared to 16,178 points and 9 All-Star appearances in #24. Either stint alone would see Kobe enter the Hall of Fame and it’s a testament to his greatness that he amassed these number as an individual.
Perhaps the greatest shame in Kobe’s sudden death though, is that we’ll never know what he would have accomplished away from basketball. In the three-and-a-half years since his retirement, he managed to win an Academy Award for the animated short Dear Basketball. He was coaching his daughters to keep up the Bryant name on the court. Gianna had aspirations to play in the WNBA and there’s no limit on how far she could’ve gone under her father’s tutelage.
We can harp on about everything Kobe Bryant did on the basketball court. We can lament that he was robbed of his opportunity to continue to realise remarkable and wonderful things in his second act. But none of these things will properly capture what the Kobe Bryant legacy really means.
The words of the man himself capture it best. “Heroes come and go, but legends are forever”. That’s what Kobe meant to people. In life, he inspired countless fans around the globe to work as hard as possible, to remain focused in the face of adversity and be the best versions of ourselves.
Kobe Bryant lives forever in the lessons he taught us. The best way to remember him is to approach everything in life with the Mamba Mentality. May he rest in peace.